Leistikow: Let's hope this wasn't the last Iowa vs. Illinois game this season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Following Iowa’s 80-75 loss at Illinois on Friday night, a common theme emerged from Hawkeyes Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp.

They were disappointed, of course. A little angry, too. And they wish they could play the Illini at their place this season.

That’s not happening, with these preseason Big Ten favorites meeting just once in the regular season.

So, how about the Big Ten Tournament?

Or, better yet, the NCAA Tournament?

We need to see Iowa vs. Illinois again this season, with all these great players and ongoing bad blood.

“Last year really started this rivalry with Illinois,” Wieskamp said of a contentious home-and-home split that had handshake-line dust-ups and last-seconds drama. “This is one we had marked on our calendars all year.

“To only get them once and to lose in that fashion is definitely disappointing. I just hope we get the opportunity to play them in the Big Ten Tournament.”

Joe Toussaint (1) rises for two points in the second half of Iowa's 80-75 loss at Illinois.

And if the seventh-ranked Hawkeyes get another shot at this Illinois team again … there are a lot of reasons to like Iowa’s chances.

I’m not here to guarantee any victories. That’d be foolish. There’s a reason Illinois (not Iowa) was my preseason Big Ten champion pick; that’s a super-talented squad that can beat anybody in the country.

But some things happened Friday night that probably won’t happen again in one game.

No. 1: Garza was saddled with rare foul trouble.

Whether or not you agree with all or some of the four foul calls on Garza, you know that’s an anomaly for the senior all-American center. He’s historically been very good at staying on the floor, even if that means playing subpar defense at times (that’s not a compliment; just a reality). Garza is a smart player who knows he’s more valuable on the floor than off it – as he was for 7 minutes, 10 seconds after picking up his third foul just 2½ minutes into the second half.

“It’s always tough to watch from the bench,” Garza said. “I’ve got to be better for my team and make sure I’m out there as much as I can be.”

The fourth foul call against him was the most egregious. The play was right in front me at the State Farm Center, and after also watching the replay at least 10 times, I’m still not sure how officials whistled him for a non-shooting foul on an entry pass to Kofi Cockburn with 4:00 to go.

Garza was pulled off the floor for 40 seconds with those fouls, and Illinois quickly scored to take a 71-69 lead.

It was impressive how craftily Garza was able to score against Cockburn, a massive presence for Illinois at 7 feet and 285 pounds, in the early going. Fouls were the only thing that slowed Garza on this night.

No. 2: Iowa won’t shoot just 6 free throws in many games.

The Hawkeyes entered the night averaging 23.3 free throws a game, second-most in the Big Ten. Getting to the line is part of their DNA, with Garza as the focal point.

That topic ended up going viral in coach Fran McCaffery’s postgame news conference, after my question about whether he noticed that Iowa got into the bonus with 10:04 remaining. (He did.)

Iowa didn’t shoot another free throw the rest of the game. That means Illinois wasn't called for another foul, either.

“That’s a great observation by you. You’re a smart guy. You really are a smart guy,” McCaffery stated carefully, knowing he cannot directly criticize officials without punishment from the Big Ten. “Either that, or I’ve got to do a much better job of getting Luka Garza to the free-throw line, apparently. I’m just a horrendous coach. Just one free throw. That’s my fault. I’ll take full blame for that.”

Illinois shot 17 free throws (making 14). But Iowa needs to learn, too, to be more aggressive in attacking opponents down the stretch. Go for the foul, not the 25-foot 3. The Hawkeyes could’ve been more assertive in last week’s loss to Indiana, too. In that one, Iowa got into the bonus and was leading, 53-44, with 12 minutes to go, but failed to take advantage of that position.

Garza played just 27:59, his lowest total in his last 14 Big Ten games. His time on the bench certainly impacted Iowa's free-throw total.

No. 3: CJ Fredrick wasn’t available.

If Iowa plays Illinois again, having Fredrick would be such a big boost.

But I liked what the non-stars brought to Champaign on Friday night.

Freshman forward Keegan Murray continued to show that he’s well beyond his years. It sounds like he was beating himself up for some mistakes afterward, but he played very well (eight points, eight rebounds) in his first career start.

Joe Toussaint responded well from increased responsibility (six points, 12:40 of playing time). I think he’s a good chess piece against the lightning-quick Illini. Freshmen Patrick McCaffery and Tony Perkins looked like they belonged, too.

And I know Jack Nunge is as frustrated as anyone that he’s not connecting on some open outside looks (2-for-7 shooting), but he’s providing good defensive backup for Garza (four blocks in 14:10).

We saw development from all of them Friday. McCaffery knows he can trust them.  

“That bodes well for the future in terms of our depth,” McCaffery said. “And we were in position to win, when Luka hardly played. That’s unfortunate. Other guys have to grow up, and they did.”

The current goal remains winning a Big Ten regular-season title. Iowa (12-4, 6-3) is now two games behind first-place Michigan (13-1, 8-1).

The end goal, though, is March.

I didn’t leave here thinking Iowa is a flawed team about to fade away. I left the State Farm Center seeing a team that had some weird circumstances go against them … and still almost beat a high-level opponent that shot 50% from the field and 82.4% from the free-throw line.

Sign me up — sign all of us up — for Iowa-Illinois Part II, if we can get it in March.

“I’m proud of the effort we put out there tonight,” Garza said. “It’s a long season, and we have a long way to go.

“To leave the building like this and feel like we should’ve won, it’s a bad feeling. But we’re going to use this as motivation going forward.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.